The Cottingley Centenary
In July 1917, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths claimed to have captured real fairies on film using their father’s camera. One hundred years on, FIONA MAHER revisits the Cottingley photographs and asks who was fooling whom in this classic case.
In July 1917, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths claimed to have captured real fairies on film. One hundred years on, Fiona Maher asks who was fooling whom in this classic case.
Despite their sometimes fierce reputation in traditional stories, the fairies have always been good to me: whether through my writing or the Legendary Fairy Festival I organise in North Wales, they have always looked after me. So, if you’re a believer then don’t be dismayed by what follows: I’m not seeking to prove or disprove the existence of the fairy folk – but the story of the Cottingley fairy photographs certainly shines a light on their trickster nature.
THE COMING OF THE FAIRIES
This year marks the centenary of one of the most celebrated events in fairyology. One hundred years ago, in July 1917, two young cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, were delighted to discover fairies flitting about Cottingley Beck, a woodland stream that ran behind their houses in the small Yorkshire town of Cottingley.
Elsie’s father, Arthur Wright, was a keen amateur photographer and proud owner of a Midg camera. The girls begged to borrow it and set off back down the steep sides of the beck to capture images of what they’d seen.
Though of the same era as Kodak’s Box Brownie, which used film, the Midg employed glass plates to create negatives. Arthur carefully developed the exposed plate in his own dark room. The picture clearly showed fairies dancing before Frances; a later image revealed Elsie with a winged gnome.
The photographs were circulated amongst the family as objects of curiosity for a couple of years, but it wasn’t until 1919 that they were revealed to the wider world – a world reeling from the aftermath of the bloodiest conflict it had ever witnessed.
World War I – at that time simply called The Great War – had shaken the foundations of British society. For thousands of people, the triple pillars of Edwardian life – the sanctity of the home, knowing one’s place, and doing one’s duty to God – had been shattered. Gender roles had been questioned, as had the strictures of class; but, even more crucially, belief in a paternal deity was undergoing a crisis. The horror of the trenches had left many asking how a merciful God could overlook such an abomination. People who had once called themselves Christians became Spiritualists, agnostics or even atheists.
Into this widening religious void stepped the Theosophical Society, a widespread group that in many ways prefigured the forms of contemporary spirituality with its avoidance of strict dogma and focus on the central message of love contained within each of the major religions.
Elsie’s mother, Polly Wright, became a member and declared: “Theosophy has saved me from atheism.” It was at a Theosophist meeting in 1919, at which the subject of fairies came up, that Polly first showed the fairy photographs to anyone outside the immediate family. From there, the images went on to be displayed at the Theosophists’ annual meeting in Harrogate in late 1919, and sometime in early 1920 they came to the attention of Edward L Gardner, a senior member of the Theosophical Society.
Gardner was entranced. He sought out the family and asked for the plates to be sent to him so the photographs could be reprinted more sharply. As a precaution, he showed them to photographic expert Harold Snelling, who reported they had been taken as single exposures, but, more importantly, that he had detected movement in the wings.
Gardner secured permission to take the photographs on a lecture tour. He gave a talk in London, which Miss EM Blomfield attended. She was so taken by the story of the girls and their photographs that she contacted her cousin, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; by an extraordinary coincidence, he had been commissioned to write a piece on fairies for the Christmas edition of The Strand magazine.
ENTER CONAN DOYLE
Conan Doyle, despite being a noted Spiritualist, was initially cautious regarding the photographs, as witnessed in his comment to psychical researcher Sir Oliver Lodge: “We must both be on our guard.” But Gardner never doubted. In no small way it was his confidence in the photographs that prevented Conan Doyle from dismissing the matter entirely. Even when the photographic experts at Kodak were less enthusiastic about the prints than Snelling, both Doyle
Snelling reported that the images had been taken as single exposures
and Gardner chose to embrace only the positive comments.
Conan Doyle’s article, accompanied by the two original pictures, appeared in The Strand magazine in 1920 to mixed reviews, but by no means to the universal scorn that’s sometimes reported. As the ‘epoch-making’ news spread to other publications, the press saw how well the photographs sold newspapers and were careful not to kill the story. Doyle set sail for a lecture tour of Australia and didn’t hear about the last three photographs until the end of 1920. Three months later, he wrote a second article in The Strand, later reproduced in his book, The Coming of the Fairies. But by the time this was published in 1922, with the third, fourth and fifth images of the Cottingley fairies, Doyle had become an object of derision in some quarters.
The girls stuck to their story: they had seen fairies at the Beck. They kept their secret for decades, until Frances confessed to the Times in 1983 that the pictures had been faked. Hat pins had anchored fairy cut-outs, and a gentle breeze had set their paper wings a-fluttering.
Yet she still maintained she had taken the last two photographs, and that they were of genuine fairies. She said they had only faked the other photographs to stop the grown-ups laughing at them.
The template for the fairy images was a line of dancing girls from The Princess Mary
Gift Book, a popular publication produced to raise money for the war effort. Frances had brought her copy with her when she came to Cottingley from South Africa in 1917. It was Elsie, the family artist, who had traced the picture and added wings to the figures.
It seems strange that Conan Doyle, a man whose sharp mind had conceived that most celebrated and cerebral of detectives, should have been fooled by two little girls. Holmes is rightly proud of his ratiocinative abilities and his powers of observation and deduction. Surely his creator also had some talent in that direction? Indeed he had.
WAYS OF SEEING
Called upon to become a real-life consulting detective in the matter of The Great Wyrley
Outrages, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle rose magnificently to the occasion, channelling pure Sherlock in a case that changed legal history.
In the early 1900s, in the Staffordshire village of Great Wyrley, a series of poison pen letters began to circulate, much to the distress of their recipients. At around the same time, a number of horses were attacked and mutilated in their fields (see FT21:8-9).
The police didn’t look far for a suspect: local solicitor George Edalji was known to wander the district at night. He was half-Indian and non-Christian – and that was deemed sufficient evidence to convict him. George was sentenced to six years hard labour and released after three. He immediately sought Conan Doyle’s assistance in clearing his name.
Conan Doyle had trained as an ophthalmologist. He employed his expertise to reveal how George’s extreme shortsightedness would not have allowed him to easily cross a few miles of open countryside, nor find his way through hedges, let alone locate an un-tethered pony in a large field on a moonless night – and all within the mere 35 unaccounted-for minutes available to him to execute the dreadful deed.
The police, annoyed at Doyle’s interference, sought to discredit him with counterfeit letters, but Doyle saw through their fakery and persevered. Edalji was eventually pardoned and it was partially
Charles Doyle was committed to the asylum, where he continued to draw the ‘little people’
due to this case that the Court of Appeal was established in 1907.
And yet, it is arguable that it was Doyle’s very ophthalmic expertise that led him astray in the case of the Cottingley Fairy photographs.
He was of the opinion that children could see more than adults. He was not thinking of some half-dreamed, psychic ability borne of innocence and conjured up by the poets, but actual, physical sight. A scant 16 years before the Cottingley photographs appeared, Wilhelm Roentgen had received a Nobel Prize for his work on Roentgen Rays, now better known as X-rays. It must have been exciting to suddenly be able to see through flesh and peer inside solid bodies, and this still relatively new discovery may well have suggested to Doyle that there were other ways of seeing, yet to be discovered.
Interestingly, in believing children can see more, Doyle wasn’t a million miles from the truth: children can certainly hear more than adults. In 2005, in Barry, South Wales, Howard Stapleton’s 17-year-old daughter was harassed by a gang of children loitering around the local Spar shop. Stapleton decided to do something about it, and his solution was remarkable. Recalling how the noise from a local factory used to upset him as a child but left the adults around him unaffected, he set about replicating the effect – and ‘The Mosquito’ was born. This device emits high frequency sounds that children can hear, but adults can’t. The Spar became the testing ground, and sure enough, unable to bear the noise, the young loiterers dispersed.
So Doyle’s hypothesis was not unreasonable, but it was fatally untested. He further compounded his error by falling back on that flawed expert analysis in which Harold Snelling had reported movement in the creatures’ wings.
Yet there was also something more compelling that urged Conan Doyle to believe – but it wasn’t, as some have argued, the loss of his son, Kingsley, in the Great War.
FAIRIES IN THE FAMILY
As in my own case, fairies were a family business for the Doyles. Richard ‘ Dicky’ Doyle, Arthur’s uncle, was a famous illustrator of many fairy books, such as the series by Andrew Lang named after the colours of their covers: TheYellow Fairy Book, The Violet Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book and so on. Dicky also created the banner artwork for Punch magazine. It might have seemed strange to the casual observer that the masthead for a satirical magazine should feature so many fairy and goblin-like creatures playing around the lettering, but it served the magazine well, becoming its longest lasting banner and surviving up until 1958.
Doyle’s father, Charles Altamont Doyle, also had artistic leanings, but he was not quite as talented as his brother. Charles trained in architecture and designed a fountain at Holyrood Palace, but still drew fairies in his spare time. Beset by self-doubt and depression, he drifted into alcoholism. When Arthur was still in his 20s, Charles was sent to a nursing home. Once there he succumbed to an even deeper depression and began suffering from epilepsy. After a violent escape attempt, he was committed to Sunnyside, the ironically named lunatic asylum at Montrose where he continued to draw all manner of ‘little people’; his own parents had been Irish, and he saw the fairies as diminutive figures without wings.
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, we have a man almost genetically predisposed to see fairies, having been brought up in a highly artistic household, with both his uncle and his father deeply interested in fairies and fairy lore. Not sharing the family’s facility for art, he turned to science to prove the existence of the little people.
Arthur obviously adored his father, and arranged an exhibition of his paintings in 1924. In His Last Bow, he has Sherlock Holmes use ‘Altamont’, his father’s middle name, as an alias. To have had a parent locked up in a lunatic asylum would have left most lateVictorians or early Edwardians filled with shame and reluctant to address any aspect of that parent’s mania. That Conan Doyle should be actively celebrating his father by promoting belief in fairies, contrary to the prevailing social niceties, is perhaps a measure of his affection for Charles. Perhaps Conan Doyle saw his father’s dipsomania as just another way of piercing the veil between the worlds. If he could now prove fairies existed, it would mean his father might not be as crazy as everyone said: Charles would be redeemed.
In 1926, Punch published a cartoon (see over) of Sir Arthur smiling beneficently, his head wreathed in clouds of pipe smoke, shackled to a pensive Holmes. Beneath it ran a poem lamenting Doyle’s fanciful ideas, compared to Holmes’s cool logic, but ending with real warmth and affection:
We sympathise with Holmes and yet, in Punch’s heart your name is set.
Of every DOYLE he is a lover, for DICKY’S sake who did his cover.
A COTTINGLEY CONSPIRACY?
One of Conan Doyle’s problems was that he couldn’t believe that Elsie and Frances – whom he described as “children of the artisan class” – would have the brazen cheek to attempt to hoodwink a man of his superior social standing.
In looking at these girls with 21st century eyes, perhaps we deceive ourselves too.
In 1917, when the girls said they first encountered the fairies, Elsie was 17 and Frances was 10. Ten seems very young to us now, but this was a time when children routinely went to work at the age of 12.
At 17, despite Conan Doyle’s description of them as “children”, Elsie certainly wasn’t a “little girl”. Furthermore, both cousins were only children within their respective families, a highly unusual situation for that era. Without siblings, they would have spent far more of their time in adult company and perhaps gained more sophistication than their years might suggest. Finally, both were comparatively well travelled. Elsie had spent time in Canada, and Frances had been almost entirely raised in South Africa. By the time their pictures became famous, the girls had already seen far more of the world than any other youngster in Cottingley. While they weren’t scheming minxes, they played their part in the drama, as did the susceptible Conan Doyle.
The Cottingley locals treated the whole affair as a joke that had got out of hand, and Elsie’s 1983 confession suggested that the girls had not told the truth for fear of embarrassing public figures like Gardner and Doyle. But was there more to it than that?
Consider the images on the opposite page. The first looks like a direct copy of the most famous of the Cottingley photographs – the initial one, showing the fairies dancing before Frances. Its execution, though, is poor in comparison to the Cottingley pictures, and the pale fairies seem out of place against the dark background.
I have been able to find very little about its creator, who appears to have died without revealing how she made it. It was created in early 1918 and is held in the same collection as the Cottingley fairy material, where it is labelled ‘Mrs Inman’s Fake Photograph’. 1
The second image was taken in the summer of 1917 and published in February 1918 in a popular magazine called The Sphere, a sister publication to the Illustrated London
News. Both images pre-date the Cottingley photographs, which weren’t seen by anyone outside of the immediate families until 1919. 2
We have only the word of the Wright and Griffiths families that the girls took the first Cottingley photographs in the summer of 1917. What if they didn’t? The families’ insistence that the first two pictures were taken in 1917 could point to a different conclusion: that the adults were part of the conspiracy too.
Given his keen interest in photography, it is a real possibility that Arthur Wright had come across one or both of these earlier pictures and decided he could do better, and that his wife Polly set out to bring the resulting images to as wide an audience as possible.
Although Box Brownie cameras were manufactured cheaply and actively marketed at that time as being for the use of children, Midg cameras were trickier to use. Could it
The Cottingley locals treated the affair as a joke that had got out of hand
be that Arthur Wright, the keen amateur photographer, did more than merely develop the glass plates? In their assessment of the photographs, Kodak stated that an “experienced photographer” might have been involved.
Could Arthur have taken the pictures? It’s an intriguing thought.
What of Polly’s part in bringing the pictures to the attention of the Theosophists? It is possible that fairies were mentioned at that meeting – but what if she herself had instigated the discussion? And, fairies aside, why was she carrying around a pair of two-year old photographs in her handbag when the subject came up in 1919? Most mothers update pictures of their children regularly – and with a photographer for a husband, Polly would have had more opportunity than most to have new photographs taken of her daughter and niece.
There is no argument that the fourth and intriguing fifth photograph, known as The Fairy
Sun-bath, 3 were taken as late as 1920, long after the Sphere and Inman images, but this raises a further question: if fairies were so prevalent around the Beck, why wait three years to get more pictures of them? Did Arthur Wright lose his nerve? Or were the 1917 pictures actually taken some time later – possibly as late as 1919, not long before they were revealed to the world?
After initially speaking highly of Conan Doyle, it seems Wright’s attitude toward him changed and cooled – but what was the reason for this newfound reserve? Arthur seems to have been distancing himself from the entire affair. It is impossible to know exactly why, but if he had created the photographs and asked his daughter and niece to claim ownership, then, by the time Doyle became involved, the matter had moved beyond any opportunity for him to admit it was a prank. If he was so embroiled, it is likely he was either embarrassed or ashamed of using the girls to front the photos, and possibly fearful of being accused of fraud and even of obtaining money by deception.
At this point one has to ask: Cui bono? Who would benefit from such a scheme?
It is likely that Gardner paid the Wright family for use of the images in his lectures and the photographs were much reproduced and sold as postcards. Then, just as things seemed to be as good as they could get, they landed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – the big fish they probably didn’t expect to hook.
In a letter to Arthur Wright, Conan Doyle mentions that The Strand will pay five pounds for the temporary use of the photographs and a further five pounds for temporary use in
the American edition. That’s somewhere in the region of £225 today and would have paid many months’ rent on a cottage back then.
In a letter to Gardner dated 3 August 1921, Doyle writes: “I hope to get a small dowry for Elsie from the fairies. Also for the little girl.” That small dowry became £100 – worth £4,500 now. With sums like this at stake, the pressure on the girls must have been enormous. However, they were not children. By 1921, Elsie was 21 and ‘little’ Frances 14, two years older than many children in full-time employment and considered a young adult by the standards of the day.
Incidentally, there has often been some confusion over the girls’ ages, even from Gardner. In a handwritten note dated 25 July 1920, he asks a series of questions on one side of the paper with the answers on the other, presumably as he received them. He gives their ages as 17 and 10. In a typewritten note outlining the story, (and possibly as preparation for his own book, published in 1945, he mistakenly gives their ages as 13 and 10). Photographs suggest more than three years’ difference in age between Elsie and Frances.
Conan Doyle insisted on using aliases for the girls – Elsie became ‘Iris’ and Frances ‘Alice’ – concerned that “a hundred charabancs” would descend upon the Beck. But his subterfuge was in vain. Somehow the story leaked, and within a week reporters from national newspapers had found their way to Cottingley. If more interest ultimately resulted in more revenue, it is not difficult to imagine the source of that leak.
All of this is conjecture. Although I believe my argument is compelling, I can’t prove who took the photographs or when: no one can. The only thing that’s certain is that, a century on, the Cottingley photographs haven’t given up all their secrets...
Brotherton Collection, Leeds University Library. This information was kindly provided by Janet Bord. She explained that in her book Real Encounters with
Fairies, the Sphere photograph was referred to but inadvertently not reproduced.
3 In 2008, Frances’s daughter appeared on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, where she said her mother had always claimed that she had taken the fifth photograph and that it showed real fairies. If you examine it closely, faces appear in the grass to the right of the fairy figures. So many people pin their hopes on this final picture, but it too would appear to be a hoax. Both Elsie and Frances claimed they took the photograph – and perhaps they both did: according to the photographic expert Geoffrey Crawley, it appears to be a simple double exposure.
Janet Bord, “Cottingley Umasked”, FT53:4853, Spring 1985; Fairies: Real Encounters with the Little People, Michael O’Mara Books, 1997. Joe Cooper, The Case of the Cottingley Fairies, Robert Hale, 1990.
FIONA MAHER is the author of The Last Changeling and the Horror in a Hurry series of novellas. She is the organiser of The Legendary Llangollen Faery Festival.
LEFT: The Midg camera used for the first two fairy photographs taken in 1917. FACING PAGE: A fairy offers flowers to Elsie in one of the 1920 photos.
ABOVE: The two 1917 photographs, showing fairies dancing before Frances and Elsie with a winged ‘gnome’. BELOW: A fairy drawn by Elsie in later life.
TOP: Conan Doyle’s uncle, the artist Richard ‘Dickie’ Doyle. ABOVE CENTRE: The young Conan Doyle and his father Charles Altamont Doyle. ABOVE: One of Richard Doyle’s exquisitely detailed fairy illustrations.
LEFT: The fifth and final Cottingley photo, “The Fairy Sun-bath”. BELOW: Conan Doyle and his famous creation in a Punch cartoon of 1926.
TOP: The mysterious Dorothy Inman photo of early 1918. ABOVE: The fairy photo published in The Sphere magazine in February 1918. Both images predate the publication of the Cottingley photos.